Year of 4E: Rituals

It has been a little bit since I have sat down to prepare one of these and I am glad to be working on rituals. They are one of my favorite redesigns from 4th Edition. So, let’s talk about how rituals not only solved a limited spell problem but became something of a broadly applicable mechanic.


Of Feats & Spells

Previous to 4E, there were no rituals. Not as such anyways. Instead, such abilities were defined in two ways: feats and spells. Spells are the most obvious place for these things with recognizable abilities such as resurrection and reincarnation. They were limited in 3rd Edition by making them high level spells, requiring the expenditure of XP, and having long cast times. None of these solutions to powerful abilities are surprising and only an experience point cost causes any real problems with game tracking. Still, they impinge upon the selection of spells.

Tenser’s Floating Disk from 4E Player’s Handbook by WotC

Feats might sound surprising as a source of abilities which might be labeled rituals, but they played a very specific role in the earlier edition. Crafting magic items, from scrolls to wands to armor, was housed under a set of feats. This allowed characters who wished to create such things to use their available feats and gain the ability to do so. Of course these feats only worked for games under certain conditions. Creating an item needed XP to be spent, gold to be used, spells to be obtained, and time to be spent. Item crafting was only useful in games with downtime and significant playtime. It was a problem the 4th Edition corrected with rituals.


Spells, But Not

For all intent and purpose, the rituals of 4th Edition were spells. While the powers of various classes may technically be called spells or prayers, these ones happened to be called rituals and worked mechanically different. Where spells and prayers were to be used in combat or quick utility they had casting times of less than a round and generally lasted short periods. Rituals, however, had long castings times that required a specific skill and components to be used up.

One of the most obvious removals from the previous edition was the experience point cost for anything. Personally, I think that was the right choice. I never played enough and didn’t enjoy assigning XP on an individual basis. Moreover, XP costs created problems for keeping a group at the same level, something I preferred for my groups. But the removal of this limit did not remove all restrictions.

There are still limits as to who can cast a ritual and who cannot. You must have the ritual caster feat to unlock the ability and you must learn the ritual, which happens to take a mere 8 hours. One day of game time might be a lot in some situations but it is much more approachable from various parties. After you know the ritual you still need to have supplies, time, and skill, but these were more flexible than any other edition and I loved it.


Imprisonment from 4E Arcane Power by WotC

Ritual Flexibility

You will notice that in 5th Edition we still have rituals. These are spells that can be cast without spending combat resources, something held over from 4E. Doing so requires more time and there are still components that must be utilized. This is no different from 4E. What is different are that they are class-linked. The spell must be on your spell list and you must know the spell to utilize it, as ritual or not.

4th Edition hit a sweet spot with me, turning powers like reincarnation, item creation, and cure disease into something that is done purposefully outside of battle without needing months of downtime. Moreover they focused on skill, not class. I have talked about Power Sources already and skills and classes were both linked to these intimately. That categorization and connection was not one of requirement though. You simply rolled the skill associated with the ritual.

This granted a flexibility that was often underutilized but had so much potential. A wizard could perform a resurrection ritual if they knew it. They might even be trained in religion and have a high chance of success, rivaling even a cleric’s ability to do so. I loved this. There are many ways it could be utilized and put the focus on selection in the realm of flavor, something 4E was really good at despite what it looks like on the outside.


A Mechanic With Room To Spare

4th Edition rituals did a lot for D&D. It took an aspect of the game that was separate from other aspects but embedded in a specific space and pulled it out. It turned it into its own thing and did so in an elegant way. Flavored to fit classes, requirements that were not hardline, simple components. More than that, components could be replaced with Residuum, an all-purpose material that acted as a resource allowing you to convert unusable magic items into a tradable or reusable ritual product. In fact, residuum would be a great addition to 5th Edition as a way to turn a magical set of armor the party needs into an emergency replacement for the diamond needed in a resurrection spell.

Image by Todd Ulrich

On top of all this, the system could be utilized for non-magical purposes. Near the edition’s end they even attempted it with martial talents providing rangers, rogues, and fighters with incredible abilities they could use outside combat. While it was no resurrection, it was a wonderful idea I wished to see explored further, refined, and improved. We managed to get maneuver fighters from the powers of 4E and more flexibility in usable abilities throughout, but it will be difficult to continue expanding martial prowess outside of subclass development. Ritual mechanics are no longer mappable to non-magical abilities.


Are there any rituals you thing need to be reintroduced from 4E? Anything you do to increase flexibility in 5E? What are some of the ways you have seen martial characters improved upon? Let me know in the comments below!

1 Response

  1. froth says:

    Thank you for this awesome post! I am going to link folks here this week on my blog/podcast.

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